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Findings from the Safety Culture and Climate Workshop

Safety culture is the buzz word now in construction. Every major employer is focusing on safety culture as the way to improve their safety performance. Understanding how safety is viewed from the ground level is essential. To better understand safety culture, CPWR, NIOSH and the NIOSH National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) Sector Council organized a workshop last June in Washington, D.C., to examine safety culture and climate. In 2008, the NORA Sector Council identified three research goals to improve safety culture:

  1. Define “safety culture”: Many definitions existed, making safety culture difficult to address. One definition needed to be developed that could be used by both the construction industry and in the research community.
  2. Measure safety culture: How do you know whether the safety culture at your jobsite is good or bad? How can you show that safety culture has improved? What metrics are most useful?
  3. What methods or best practices could be used to improve safety culture? Which are most effective?

To make progress on these goals, researchers, union leaders, safety professionals from construction companies and representatives from the insurance industry and trade associations convened at the safety culture workshop last June and discussed these issues for a day and a half.

Below are some of the conclusions from that workshop. The CPWR’s full report is available online, along with an additional collection of presentations and handouts from the workshop.

The workshop made important distinctions between “safety culture” and “safety climate.” The group broadly defined safety culture as a reflection of how a company addresses safety, and noted that is very hard to change. Safety climate, on the other hand, should be used to describe the safety culture of a particular jobsite. The workshop settled on the following definitions:

  • Safety Culture: Deeply held but often unspoken safety-related beliefs, attitudes, and values that interact with an organization’s systems, practices, people and leadership to establish norms about how things are done in the organization.
  • Safety Climate: Shared perceptions of safety policies and procedures by members of an organization regarding the adequacy of safety and consistency between actual conditions compared to espoused safety policies and procedures.
  • Project Safety Climate: Perceptions of occupational safety and health on a particular construction project at a given point in time. It is a product of the multiple safety climates from the different organizations involved in the project including the project owner, construction manager/general contractor and subcontractors.

In terms of influencing safety culture and safety climate, the group found a number of factors that have a major impact:

  • Supervisory leadership
  • Safety as a value/safety alignment
  • Management commitment
  • Owner/client involvement
  • Employee involvement
  • Accountability
  • Communications
  • Training

While not standardized, many worker surveys used in construction contain similar elements. Most efforts (such as worker surveys) are really measuring project safety climate. To help gauge safety culture progress, workshop participants focused on a rubric approach. Below is a sample rubric for one of these factors. By reviewing the rubric, a company can see where they stand on the safety culture spectrum and where they need to go.

Dysfunctional Reactive Compliant Proactive Exemplary


Company doesn’t care about training. Fraudulent training cards are accepted. Leaders required to obtain OSHA 10-hour certificate. Training is implemented after accident only. Training is aimed at the individual worker. Training effort diminishes over time. Leaders required to obtain OSHA 30-hour certificate. An off-the-shelf curriculum is used to meet OSHA and management system training requirements. Instructors have minimal qualifications. Majority of training is provided via toolbox talks. Training records are kept. Leadership acknowledges the importance of training and testing knowledge and skills. Safety curriculum developed and administered by the company. Instructors are qualified trainers. Training needs may be initiated by workers. Supervisors get training on safety skills as well as OSHA standards. Company implements a Safety Trained Supervisor program certification. Comprehensive training using adult learning principles (e.g., interactive) is provided on ongoing basis. Trained instructors are used. Supervisor-specific training as well as peer-to-peer training is implemented. Workers are integral to identifying training needs and developing materials.

Those attending the workshop also generated a list of ideas and best practices to improve safety climate on jobsites.

  • Improve safety site leadership through foreman/supervisor training
  • Integrate safety as a value by incorporating it into the design process
  • Optimize management commitment through interactions between top managers, site safety personnel and craft workers
  • Involve workers through stop work authority and pre-job planning
  • Ensure accountability through root cause investigations
  • Improve communication and safety training
  • Encourage owner/client involvement

There is still a long way to go toward improving safety culture in construction, and follow-up meetings have been planned to build on the progress made at this workshop. The workshop itself, and the report it generated, are a major contribution to the ongoing efforts to understand and improve safety culture in construction. Copies of the report are available online at the CPWR’s website.

The LHSFNA and the LIUNA Training and Education Fund can provide additional guidance about improving safety culture on the job through curriculum for supervisors and other personnel. For more information, call the Occupational Safety and Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health. He helped co-author the CPWR’s report on safety culture and climate.]

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